By Denise Lodge
Snowshoeing requires three elements: you, a snowy area, and snowshoes. More than 6,000 years ago, snowshoeing was a means of travelling across vast snowy plains. By the 1600s, snowshoes had become vital to the Canadian fur trade, and to daily winter travel. Now, while people continue to snowshoe for transportation, the activity is also used to improve fitness and to enjoy the outdoors. In 2010, after polling 40,000 people, SnowSports Industries America concluded that the popularity of snowshoeing had increased by 11 per cent in one year, and that snowshoe sales had increased by eight per cent.
Fun and easy-to-learn, snowshoeing is an ideal winter activity that does not require intensive training or rulebooks.
Health Benefits of Snowshoeing
Snowshoeing is relatively inexpensive, requires minimal athletic experience, and suits various personalities. Snowshoeing can be enjoyed in large groups, but it also allows users to get off the beaten path with a partner and quietly enjoy the peaceful scenes of winter.
Snowshoeing is low-impact, and can be enjoyed at different paces, as with walking. Despite its ease, snowshoeing has cardiovascular benefits; the activity requires continuous effort, which raises and maintains the heart rate. Snowshoeing can burn up to 700 calories per hour, more than are burned when cross-country skiing or ice skating. Because of the snow’s instability, snowshoeing engages the abdominal, thigh, and calf muscles; using trekking poles maximises the benefits, incorporating the shoulder, arm and back muscles into the workout.
How to Snowshoe
Snowshoeing requires little practice. The technique is simple: stand with feet slightly wider than usual, so that the snowshoes do not overlap, using poles for extra support. To go uphill, instead of walking flat-footed on the incline, kick the snowshoes toe-first into the snow, creating a step from which to push off.
Dressing for the Occasion
At $100 to $300 per pair, snowshoes may seem costly, but considering that they are the only gear essential to snowshoeing, and taking into account the equipment required by other winter activities, the investment is nominal.
If the price is too steep, consider renting snowshoes from an outdoors equipment store or sports club for $12 to $25 per day. When purchasing a used pair of snowshoes, inspect them for chipped frames, overstressed bindings, holes, and rips.
Keep in mind that the length of a snowshoe is dependent on the user’s weight. The most common adult sizes range from 56 to 91 centimetres (22 to 36 inches), and the weight supported by the snowshoe is reflected in the price.
There are two primary types of snowshoes: traditional snowshoes and modern snowshoes; each serves its own purpose and has its respective benefits.
The frames of traditional snowshoes are made of wood, such as willow sticks; lacing is traditionally made of rawhide, but some new models of traditional style snowshoes have synthetic lacing. Traditional snowshoes are best suited to deeper snow, keeping users on top of the snow, not knee-deep in it. To maintain traditional snowshoes, apply a coat of oil-based exterior varnish to rawhide lacings and wooden frames once a year to keep the lacings from stretching and sagging.
Modern snowshoes are lighter than traditional snowshoes; their frames are made of aluminum, or less expensive, less durable plastic. Bindings, straps that wrap around boots, should fit snugly around your foot and heel. Crampons, sharp points under the heel and toe of the snowshoe, increase traction on ice, improving stability and helping to prevent falls. When searching for snowshoes to purchase, try them on in the store, wearing your boots.
While not essential, trekking poles help snowshoers to recover from falls and pull themselves up from the snow. They also help snowshoers turn around and go up or downhill. Because of the added stability and safety they bring to snowshoeing, poles are a good investment.
Water-proof hiking boots that protect feet from frigid temperatures are well suited to snowshoeing; treks are safer and more comfortable without the distraction of cold feet. When trying on a snowshoe, ensure that your boot’s toe fits through the hole at the front of the snowshoe. Layering clothing, as in hiking, is also safe and wise. Wear breathable waterproof materials to stay dry, repel cold winds, and retain heat.
Safety While Snowshoeing
While snowshoeing is, for the most part, a safe, fun way to enjoy the beauty of winter, the potential for emergency warrants preparation and preventative measures. In January, Josephine Johnson, 53, and her boyfriend Jim Dickman went snowshoeing in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. While trekking, they saw another snowshoer, 66-year-old Yong Chun Kim, fall down a slope. When they went for help, they became disoriented and spent two nights in white-out conditions and below-freezing temperatures. They survived the storm, but Johnson now plans to carry an avalanche beacon with her, and recommends the device to others.
An avalanche beacon is a specialised device designed to lead rescue teams to people or objects trapped under snow. Such equipment cannot prevent avalanches; its purpose is to reduce the amount of time that one is buried under the snow. For anyone planning to snowshoe in avalanche zones, avalanche safety courses are highly recommended. Not intended to replace face-to-face training, the Canadian Avalanche Centre’s free online course is designed to help voyagers to recognise signs of danger, and to be better prepared for riskier treks.
It may be tempting to go snowshoeing alone to experience nature in solitude. However, it is best to snowshoe with a friend or partner. Beginners are best suited to enjoying a snowy path in a group, with an experienced showshoer leading the way. When someone else leads, breaking up the snow and creating a trail, it is easier to snowshoe.
How to Get Started
Snowshoeing requires little preparation and practice; to begin, join a group at your local sports club, community centre, or outdoors equipment store. Some outdoors equipment stores, such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, offer rentals. To purchase your own snowshoes, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canadian Tire, and Canada Post carry snowshoes in a variety of sizes and styles. Snowshoeing is fun, easy, and affordable; the sights and sounds of winter are waiting for you.